Cash is often the most sought after type of capital in startup land. Real, authentic networking is a severely underestimated skill for founders and entrepreneurs to cultivate. One of the most undervalued resources for a startup founder is social capital. The wider and deeper your network is, the simpler you will find fundraising, hiring, and business development.
It’s easy to act like you’re the shit. It’s easy to treat other people as stepping stones towards your summit of success. It’s very difficult to build a real network of people who believe in you and are willing to assist you, no questions asked. This is a key point; building a network of people isn’t that hard. Building an authentic network of value people who can actually help you reach your lofty goals, now that’s a talent.
Here are a few tips to help you build an authentic network of people around you:
1. BE PATIENT
Building a real network of people takes time.
I’m not talking about days or months, I’m talking about years. To really be able to lean on your network you have to build and nurture relationships over many, many years. You’ll be surprised how quickly you move from a coffee meeting to a warm business connection to a friend and then on to someone that you can really rely on. Before you know it, you’ll have known some of the people in your network for more than a decade.
These people, the ones you have deep and meaningful conversations with over a coffee, walk or meal are the ones you can lean on when times get tough. These are the same people who make the most life-changing introductions because they believe in you and your cause.
It takes a long time to build up these relationships and this is my number 1 tip for building an authentic relationship; you cannot rush authenticity. I’m going to repeat this point throughout the article. Networking cannot be done at a single networking event hosted at a co-working space.
2. GIVE WITHOUT ASKING FOR ANYTHING
There is no such thing as altruism. Even Mother Theresa gained joy from helping people, defeating her altruism. I learned this in my first year studying philosophy. Mother Theresa wasn’t altruistic and nor are you. When you meet someone and strike up a business relationship they will absolutely expect you to ask for something. So don’t.
Meet with them. Buy them a coffee. Have engaging questions prepared. Ask them about their story. Ask them how they managed to build the thing they built. Ask about their family and how they balance their life. Ask about their co-founders. But don’t ask them for something that you need.
Asking someone that you have just met for a favor is condescending and frustrating. For many people, just meeting with you is a disruption in their day so acknowledge that by being polite, engaging and prepared.
3. SUPPORT YOUR SUPPORT
As you try to grow your network, remember that the person you are talking with is probably also trying to grow theirs. Even if you are a young founder just starting out you are going to have something valuable to offer. You may know other founders in a vertical that is interesting. You may know a friend who is the best salesperson in the world and would be a great fit for someone in your network.
It’s important to always offer up support wherever it may seem valuable. Don’t just take. Give support freely, even if it sometimes costs you.
4. BE HONEST
Don’t bullshit. Smart, savvy and experienced people will see right through you. Don’t come with a hidden agenda. In fact, send an agenda through to the person you are meeting so that they know what they’re walking into. Even if that means your agenda looks as follows:
Agenda for our 30min coffee:
- Introduction — I’ll tell you a bit about myself
- A quick funding question (starting my angel round)
- Someone I think you should meet (a good friend who is in your vertical)
That’s it. That’s a good, straightforward agenda that helps to lay out the 30 minutes.
5. LISTEN MORE, TALK LESS
Once you are sitting with this new person whom you’d like to bring in to your network, do me a favour and shut up.
Introduce yourself and then start asking questions that help the other person talk about themselves and their experience, life, and interests. It’s like being on a date; your potential partner doesn’t just want to hear about how amazing you are, they want to tell you how amazing they are too. Very few people will pass up the chance to talk about themselves and something they are passionate about.
Be sure to make this a conversation, not a presentation. Both of you should engage in a meaningful way to get to know one another and figure out as quickly as possible if you’re a network match.
The best way that I have found to quickly disarm people is to be brutally honest with them about something. Often I’ll mention something important or personal and show them that I trust them enough to open up.
Many people believe that trust is earned. I do not. I give trust freely at the beginning until I have a reason not to trust you. Go into first engagements this way; Trust people until they give you a reason not to trust them.
6. DO NOT PITCH
This should be obvious. Do not meet someone with the intention of expanding your network and then pitch them out of the blue.
Nobody likes to feel like they are being used. See point #1 above.
7. STOP GOING TO NETWORKING EVENTS
Networking events are not for networking. They are for busy founders who want to look more busy than other founders.
Networks are not built at networking events. They are built in the daily grind of sifting through contacts, engaging with your existing trusted network and having one on one meetings that are authentic. I can’t think of a single person that I met at a networking event that I still hold as part of my network today.
Stop wasting your time trying to look busy and network en masse. It can’t be done.
8. EMAIL CAN WORK
As long as you are not emailing someone out of the blue asking them for money, advice or some form of support, email can work. If you are emailing someone to thank them for an article, tell them how they’ve inspired you or just to introduce yourself, that’s fine. See point #1 above.
9. NURTURE NOT NATURE
Relationships like the ones you are trying to build for your professional network are not natural. They don’t just appear as part of life. They are hard work and take a lot of care, time and attention. You need to nurture your network constantly.
I have a simple trick to help me engage more frequently with people in my network that I care about. Once a month I go to the bottom of my contact list in my chat apps (Whatsapp/Telegram/Skype) and I start to messag the people from the bottom up. The bottom is obviously the people I have not spoken to recently so I start there. Some reply, some don’t, everyone is busy and that’s fine. But just drop them a message saying “Hi, How are you, long time!” and then go on about your day.
10. CHOOSE PEOPLE YOU MIGHT LIKE
Money is easy to find. Networks can be simple to grow and map out. Finding the right kind of people is more difficult. You need to carefully curate who you let into your network.
In the beginning, it will seem like anyone would be good to bring in to the mix, but the truth is much more complex. Some people have money but are bad. Some people are good but distracting. Some people are right for right now but not for the future. The right people will eventually present themselves and when you find them, you’ll know.
11. BONUS TIP: DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH #DYOR
Do not rock up to a first-time meeting with someone you are trying to build a relationship with and ask them to tell you about themselves. You should be prepared, you should know who they are, what they do, where they came from and how they got to where they are.
If you don’t know these things then why are you even interested in meeting with them?
I have a strict double-opt-in policy for introductions. This means that if I believe two people should meet up for whatever reason, I make sure to ask them both if they want to be introduced. I explain where I think the value is and give each person a short background on the other. Most introductions don’t come as clean as this so it’s up to you to investigate.
Don’t be creep, of course, but do know your subject and show them that you’ve taken time to find out about them and plan your engagement.
12. BONUS TIP: DO NOT MAKE ME SIGN AN NDA
The number of times I have arrived at a meeting with a young founder who is looking for advice or funding from me or my network and have been presented with an NDA is laughable.
Please, take note; NO ONE SIGNS NDAs.
If you ask me to sign an NDA in a casual coffee/drink/lunch meeting I will get up and leave. If you respect me enough to want me in your network then please respect me enough to assume that I am not going to rob you of your bazillion dollar idea.
The advice above can be filtered down into the following simple statement:
Be yourself for long enough that people like and trust you enough to want to help you.